One of the many things that I have cherished over the years is what a former US Senator, William Borah, said in the 1930s. This is what he said about 80 years ago:
“The safeguards of our liberty are not so much in danger from those who openly oppose them as from those who, professing to believe in them, are willing to ignore them for their purposes.”
Borah was talking about the US yet many years later we have witnessed how universal and worldwide his powerful message and acute insights have become. Not only for the West, the East, but for Africa as well.
The latest being the stealing of the recent elections in the Ivory Coast by incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo from the clear winner opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.
See how Gbagbo, a man who presumably believed in democracy is now prepared to throw those democratic credentials through the window and is now willing to ignore the will of the people, in the process exploiting the differences of the Ivorians on ethnic and regional grounds for his own purposes.
Sounds familiar in this part of the world, doesn’t it?
Yes indeed it does. With Ian Smith, we knew exactly where we stood. We knew our place in the then Rhodesian society. One-man-one-vote was totally out of the question.
There was no pretence at all on the part of Smith and his Rhodesian Front colleagues. We had to fight a bitter and protracted war to bring about the principle of one-man-one-vote. Or is it one-person-one-vote? Although of course, the word “son” is still contained in the word “person”.
Other countries in southern Africa had to fight for freedom and democracy for all regardless of race, tribe or shape of one’s nose. South Africa, Mozambique and Angola did just that.
But now look at what is happening in some countries in this part of the world, including Zimbabwe. Dictators stealing elections despite having professed to believe in liberty and democracy during the liberation struggles.
Dictators stealing elections using anti- colonialist, anti-imperialist rhetoric to justify their actions.
Not that colonialism did not do bad things in Africa. No! Yes, the West of course did a lot of bad things in Africa.
But what I am saying is that colonialism should not be blamed for every bad thing going on in Africa, like stealing elections for example.
We must take responsibility for our own actions. Period! In any event colonialism ended about 50 years ago although neo-colonialism could be rearing its ugly head here and there on the continent.
Botswana’s President Ian Khama was spot on when he told BBC’s Focus on Africa programme that the international community, including African heads of state, must strongly condemn what has happened in the Ivory Coast and should call on the losing presidential candidate, incumbent Laurent Gbagbo to step down.
“One would have hoped that by now, on the African continent, we would have gone past those days of coups and ridiculous situations like we have now in Ivory Coast,” Khama said.
Then came the killer punch that I shall always salute Khama for: “I say no to brokering a power-sharing agreement, as the international community did in Kenya and Zimbabwe. Elections there were hijacked by the ruling party and if that is what is going to happen every time someone wants to dispute an election result and then stay in power by default through a mechanism of power-sharing, then it’s wrong ”.
Thankfully, the international community, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the US and the EU, have all said they recognise Alassane Ouattara as President of the Ivory Coast.
It is gratifying that the African Union and Economic Community of West African States have strongly condemned Gbagbo and suspended Ivory Coast. We await further action from that body.
That really puts South Africa’s mediation efforts on the spot. Let us see what former South African president Thabo Mbeki comes up with. Heaven forbid a repetition of the Zimbabwean scenario.
But with both men claiming the presidency and having formed their governments, nothing can be taken for granted in the Ivory Coast.
Things could deteriorate very fast, with devastating consequences not only for the Ivorians but for the entire world. What an unhappy situation for a country that had been split in two by a civil war eight years ago and hoped to normalise political life and unification through this year’s presidential election.
But the key point I want to make in concluding my discussion on the Ivory Coast crisis and earlier crises in Africa such as Kenya and Zimbabwe and others elsewhere, is that we must not get the impression there is something uniquely evil about Africa as a continent. Africa has many images. Not all beautiful. Not all negative, bad or ugly. There is a lot of diversity in Africa.
The truth of the matter is there are two competing trends in Africa: the good examples and the bad ones.
Some African political leaders bring their people together. Others, like what has happened in Ivory Coast, exploit things on ethnic and regional grounds.
Part of the problem in the development of our continent is image. There is a tendency to over–generalise things.
I do think myself we must get away from this habit of making generalised statements about Africa. In our part of the world, Botswana and South Africa, for example, are proud and successful countries.
But the stories that tend to sell everywhere, particularly in the West, are doom and gloom stories: wars, famine, coups, starving children, African leaders ignoring the will of the people and so on and so forth. It is reality of course but not the total reality. That is my point.
True, it is not easy in some countries on this continent to remove either first presidents or incumbent ones by constitutional means.
In such countries, the fallen leader has to be killed, exiled, imprisoned or at least he chooses his successor. But then it has happened elsewhere also that African leaders have lost power through democratic elections.
Zambia, Malawi, South Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania immediately come to mind.
I guess what we have to continually do in Africa as voters is to make it clear to the would-be contenders for power there is no alternative to “rule by consent”.
And to make it clear also there are decided limits to the ability and power of the military to keep losing incumbents in power as is happening in the Ivory Coast right now.
I believe, however, in the end, Africa will go through the same historical processes as every other continent. Africa will go through periods of authoritarianism and it will swing away from authoritarianism.
Africa will produce its own dictators. Because Africans are no different from other people the world over they will produce good and evil leaders as on any other continent.
Perhaps, this perception that nothing good happens in Africa is a hangover from the past.
So many people even in this day and age cannot yet think of Africans as being no different from everybody else.
In the end, and this is my bottom line, Africa’s political developments will be the same as everybody else’s.
Bornwell Chakaodza is a veteran journalist and media consultant.